StoryCorps – a national initiative to gather oral memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I went to WHYY last week to see Boomervision. That’s the name of a series of gatherings hosted by Coming of Age in Philadelphia, to explore issues of boomers reaching a new milestone in their lives. Outside, pulled up on the sidewalk of the WHYY studio was a mobile van with the logo of “StoryCorps,” painted on the side. I had heard about this organization that travels around the country recording oral histories. People come to the StoryCorps van and interview someone they know. The StoryCorps gives them each a copy of the recording, and files a copy in the Library of Congress. It’s a way to remember parts of life and make those memories available for posterity. The door was open and I went inside.

The young man who was sitting there, Mike Rauch, greeted me, and I asked him questions about what he does and how it works. Most people come here with a relative, and the younger one asks the older one questions. But there is no formula or rule. Some people come more than once. He told me that one woman in New York has been into the recording booth 70 times. She brings friends, relatives, even strangers, and interviews them about their lives. We were sitting in the kitchen of a converted travel trailer. The other half was the sound studio. While Mike and I sat talking at the cramped kitchen booth, a 90-something year old black woman was sitting right next to him, looking off to the side, trying not to intrude on our conversation.

She had just finished doing a recording and was waiting for her niece to pick her up. I turned to her and asked, “How did you feel about doing this interview?” Her eyes jumped to life when she looked up at me, and sparkled for a moment. She said, “It was okay.” Then paused. “I just remember so much. So much,” and she looked at the floor. Mike said, “Yes, she was saying things that her niece had never heard, even though they had been through this same material many times before.” I asked Mike if telling their story hurts people sometimes. He said, “Oh yes, we keep a box of tissue in there. People cry a lot, but they never want to stop talking. And they remember happy moments, too.”

I asked him what it was like being there day after day listening and helping with these interviews. He said, “I’m fascinated by the variety of the stories. These situations are all so unique. You can’t make this stuff up.” I was wondering if this was a career position for him. “I’m at that point in my life when I’m trying to carve out a niche for myself. I’m going to start a video and animation production company with my brother.” I thought how interesting to see the span of life. Here he is, trying to understand where his life is going, and he’s sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, majestic in her abundance of days. Two hours ago they had never seen each other, and then he listened to her tell her niece memories from six and seven decades earlier. Now these two were bonded by story.

Next week, I’m going back. David Isay, founder of the StoryCorps will be speaking in Philadelphia and signing his book Listening is an Act of Love.

Learn more about StoryCorps from their website, www.storycorps.net

5 thoughts on “StoryCorps – a national initiative to gather oral memoirs

  1. As a student in the Southern Studies program at the U of Mississippi, I had the opportunity to do oral history work for two of my major undergraduate courses. One involved teachers at an elementary school in my town who all came from families of teachers and the other, which stemmed from the original teaching paper, involved interviews of students of a piano teacher who taught them all.

    The worst thing about oral history work is transcribing. The best thing is everything else. It’s a shock when you speak with people about interviewing them and they so often say, “Oh. Well, there’s nothing interesting about me.”

    So far I’ve never found a truly boring person or life about which to learn.

    I’m hoping to conduct oral histories of the folks here in my apartment complex. There are dozens of fascinating histories here. So many are African-American’s who were involved in the Civil Rights movement. Since I’ve lived among these folks for a year, they know me now, so getting their real stories is much more likely.

  2. Hi Virginia Lee,

    That’s lovely that you are involved in oral history. As David Isay’s book title says, “Listening is an act of love.”

    Jerry

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